Architect whose greatest work was Belfast opera house

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

ROBERT MCKINSTRY:Architect Robert McKinstry’s passion was for conservation and restoration and his legacy lives on in some of Belfast’s landmark buildings – the Crown Bar, St Anne’s Cathedral, Queen’s University and the Grand Opera House to name just a few.

A former consultant architect to The National Trust, who had a lifelong interest in art and theatre, he received an OBE in 1995 in recognition of his services to architecture.

He was born in Banbridge in 1925 to John (Gar) McKinstry, the manager of a local linen factory, and Mabel (May) McConnell , a native of Dublin. Gar had been a cavalry officer during the first World War and had won the Military Cross for gallantry.

Robert’s artistic leanings were obvious from an early age and he was encouraged at Banbridge Academy by Mercy McCann (nee Hunter), a teacher who nurtured his talent and remained a lifelong friend.

He later attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen where the roll call of famous past pupils included Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett.

Encouraged to study architecture, he went to Liverpool University and as a student became involved in amateur dramatics. In a tribute at his funeral, Robert’s son Jason recalled that his closest brush with fame was when he was summoned to Pinewood Studios to do a screen test for Blue Lagoon where his competition included Laurence Harvey and Roger Moore.

After qualifying in 1948, Robert studied European theatre architecture and spent time in Paris and London before returning to Belfast where he set up his own practice in 1956. He also lectured part-time at Belfast Technical College, then home to the College of Art, where one talented art student named Cherith Boyd caught his eye. They were married in 1958.

A stalwart of the architectural heritage movement even during the Troubles, his greatest achievement was the restoration of Belfast’s Grand Opera House which had opened in 1895 and suffered years of neglect and bomb damage before he first visited it in 1975. “What struck me most was the extraordinarily abandoned look of the inside,” he later wrote. “The house manager’s black jacket still hung on the back of his office door; the ashtrays attached to the seats had never been emptied and in the bar there were still half-full glasses and crates of bottled beer. It was like the Mary Celeste.” A talking point that did not meet universal approval was his conservatory-type “crush bar” to the main facade. Another notable feature was Cherith’s ceiling paintings in the main auditorium.

Another labour of love was Chrome Hill, the family home in Lambeg, a Georgian House Robert had bought in 1968.

He was devastated when Cherith died in 2004 but his love of beautiful buildings and his interest in people continued to enrich his life. A former board member of the Northern Ireland Arts Council and president of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, he won many honours including the Civic Trust Award for the Grand Opera House and the OBE.

He is survived by his three sons, Simon, Leo and Jason.

Born January 15th, 1925. Died October 29th, 2012.